The Wisdom of the Tribe

Written by: 
Published:
May 2, 2019

It’s Friday and I’m planning the Sabbath activities for the kids and me and my husband Tommy. I’m already troubleshooting for if the weather is bad, what food they will be up for eating, who we might get together with, how to handle the sibling conflict during worship Friday night, and whether the bikes are in working order. It’s challenging to balance what I encourage/require the girls to do versus how much flexibility I have in what they can choose or not choose to do. Going to church is a requirement in our home (even though I support others having Sabbaths off from church), but other activities may not be so prescribed. We can negotiate what we do during evening worship, whether the 10-year-old can stay up later than her younger sisters, how much snacking and of what kind is allowed, or what activities can be done while they sit beside us during the sermon. I want the special time of the Sabbath to be something they love, but it takes so much organization—and I don’t know how parents do it when they are all by themselves without the support of extended family, good friends, or a “tribe” of others they can share the burdens with.

I’m not a parent. But I have a big family. The kids I’ll spend Sabbath with are my three nieces. Even as someone whose family isn’t traditional, dealing with those family relationships in ways that promote healthy thriving is challenging—especially my “aunting” with my 10 nieces and nephews. Having wisdom in handling faithful family relations is something we all need, whether we are married or parents or single or childfree. And the Bible is full of proverbs and wise sayings about how to handle our tempers with each other, mandates to work hard, be cheerful and patient, and to be faithful to God, our spouses and larger family groups. When we read the scriptural texts, when we dip into books about parenting or marriage or sibling relations, it can be overwhelming. There are so many ways to go wrong. The stakes seem so high.

Few of my family members attend church and the spiritual health of those young people is important to me—but so is their overall wellbeing and I don’t want them to think I’m only proud of them or love them if they pursue spiritual relationships in the way I do. I value being able to have my nieces overnight on Sabbath and I get a tiny bit of a glimpse of the challenges parents face in trying to be consistent, loving, generous, wise and provide teaching without dogmatism. I notice that when parents judge their “success” by certain outcomes, especially by how involved their children are in church activities, or whether they have academic achievement, the parental stress and anxiety are palpable. And yet those are things that we do often want for our loved ones. So how can we navigate that line?

Watching my siblings and friends navigate joys and heartbreaks and outright frustrations of parenting makes me grateful that the wisdom of Scripture is provided in the context of God’s grace. We read the description of the woman of Proverbs 31 and it seems like too much to ask. We are dealing with our spiritual doubts and wounds and wonder what we should teach our kids to help them avoid the same. How much do we encourage and push our children or siblings to be all they can be, and when do we just love and enjoy them for who they are? What happens when we struggle with frustration, when we are beset by our demons of anxiety, when we are exhausted and the work ethic of Proverbs 31 makes us want to sit down and never get up?

In the twenty-first century, we have access to lots of information about good psychological understanding, tactics for being authentic and brave in the face of fears and vulnerability, and possibilities for treating our families well even while we struggle with our own imperfection. Again, those are both useful and overwhelming—so many things we need to be watching out for and implementing and there isn’t enough time in the world to follow all the programs that are out there for us. Thank goodness that Jesus came to provide grace and healing and to tell us that He is enough, and so we are enough when we rest in the assurance that we are His beloved children.

Currently Tommy and I are primarily concerned with supporting our aging parents. We have found there are few resources, biblical or otherwise, for handling the mix of neediness and obstinate independence that seem to be the modus operandi of people from their 70s to their 90s (and beyond?!). The idea of respecting our parents, and our mandate to care for our families is there, but how do we know when to insist on a plan that violates their ideals for independence? What happens when siblings disagree? How do we handle the money issues?

We need wisdom. Sometimes it seems more accessible than at other times. And we have to have mercy on ourselves and our family members. My sisters have all had very different parenting practices. Sometimes those differences have resulted in conflict—and a spirit of judgement. It’s easy for me as someone who is not parenting to believe that I know what they should be doing to handle this or that problem. But mostly we just need to believe that people are all trying to be loving and responsible in the best way they know and cut them some slack for that. And to believe that God has our back, all of us. He wants us to thrive in the care of our families, and there might be some practices that can help with that, but it’s also an imperfect world. So we need the unconditional and encouraging love of Jesus.

This week, as I meditate on the biblical wisdom for families, I wonder how we can support each other communally, in churches, friendship groups, larger extended families. We might find it easier to be patient, faithful, consistent in our practices if we had people commiserating and laughing with us, giving us a break, and speaking the truth of God’s grace and longsuffering to us. Who is your family? Where are you being held up by your tribe? Where are you the one offering the support?

Lisa Clark Diller is Chair of the History Faculty at Southern Adventist University.        

Photo by Di Lewis on Pexels.

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